Shortly after the California Gold Rush, the first commercial abalone fishery sprang to life along the central and southern Californian coast, an industry founded and developed by Chinese immigrants. By shipping dried black abalone (Haliotis cracherodii) to Chinese communities in the American West, and exporting the product to a ready market in China, Chinese merchants assembled an elaborate trade network that reached from Santa Barbara, California, to China. Here, we offer the first synthesis of archaeological and historical data that describes the elements of Chinese export activities interpreted through a trading diaspora framework. Our results reveal details about an international trade network supported by the formation of self-governing business associations, relationships with trading partners, and interactions with European Americans. This study fills a critical gap in our understanding of the broader context of California’s historical fisheries and contextualizes the strategies of Chinese merchants who took advantage of new opportunities presented by a changing Pacific economy.